Modernization, Rule of Law and Formation of Civil Society in the Age of Nasir al-Din Shah

  May 23, 2021   Read time 2 min
Modernization, Rule of Law and Formation of Civil Society in the Age of Nasir al-Din Shah
The dissidents in exile had only an indirect impact on the course of the constitutional movement, and this was mostly through domestic activists. Enjoying the blessing of two high-ranking mojtaheds, Behbahani and Tabatabai, the activists among middle- and lower-ranking mullahs made more demands on the state.

This helped turn an initially limited protest movement with mundane aims into a national outcry for a constitution, popular representation, and civil rights. These ideas, adopted by a handful of advocates from such sources as Malkom Khan’s Qanun and the fictional travelogue of Ibrahim Beg by Maraghehi, were communicated to high-ranking clerical leaders and then passed down to the general public. Sayyed Mohammad Tabatabai’s support for constitutionalism, rooted in his admirably liberal predilections, was atypical among the jurists of the period. His ally, Sayyed ‘Abdollah Behbahani, however, seemed to have been driven as much by ambitions of leadership and alleged monetary concerns as by aspirations for democracy. Both leaders belonged to families who had enjoyed social distinction for more than a century. At the outset they relied heavily on their better-informed subordinates for their knowledge of such notions as civil rights, legislation, and national sovereignty, but their courage and prestige made them enormously popular with the public. Tabataba’i in particular was endowed with a genuine urge to establish a pluralistic society based on rule of law and individual freedoms, concepts that he himself acknowledged as inconsistent with the best interests of the mojtahed class. The early absence of a coherent political agenda among the protesters is evident, for instance, in the set of demands set forth in December 1905 during the bast (sanctuary) that was organized in response to the government’s treatment of sugar merchants. The most significant demand was a call to establish a “house of justice” (‘adalat-khaneh), which would be compatible with shari‘a and would protect subjects from the state’s arbitrary measures, especially in collecting taxes. Yet the list of demands also included such seemingly mundane items as dismissal of a notorious carriage driver who monopolized the route between Tehran and the nearby shrine of Shah ‘Abd al-‘Azim, and whose uncouth conduct generated many complaints from the pilgrims. No mention, however, was made of the qanun (law or constitution), division of powers, or creation of a legislative assembly. Even the concept of the “house of justice” was not particularly favored by many, for it implied a potential departure from the decentralized judicial courts that the ulama had long cherished. The notion of the house of justice, which eventually transformed into a call for a national assembly, had its roots in the writings of the Bab and the messianic aspiration to establish a house of justice (bayt al-‘adl) under the Imam of the Age.